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Music Review: Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers – Chucho’s Steps

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The cover shot of Chucho Valdés’ latest release shows the Cuban maestro approaching a sun-baked crossroads, an image that brings to mind the rural South, Robert Johnson, Hell-Hounds, and the Delta blues.

The crossroads, it’s a place where influences converge and for Chucho it’s the place where U.S. jazz and Afro-Cuban traditions meet. Music unites peoples of different languages and traditions; it pays no attention to geographical borders or cultural frontiers. Globalization is nothing new to musicians

Jelly Roll Morton, the man who many believe was the first Jazz arranger, talked about the gumbo soup of musical influences in New Orleans, stating: “Now in one of my earliest tunes, New Orleans Blues, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.” What Mr. Jelly Roll was calling “Spanish” was actually Afro-Caribbean but the point remains.

Music is a reflection of the mind and the story we tell about music is the story we tell about ourselves. In the U.S., the story of jazz reflects a conversation between blacks and whites, about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and anti-African racism. Jazz musicians become characters in our national story, at times romanticized by middle-class whites as with the life of the self-destructive Charlie Parker, and at other times it’s a re-working of the Great American Myth, that hard-done-by people can rise above and the human spirit always triumphs. The story of Jazz becomes the story of the black phoenix.

It’s a beautiful and ennobling story but it excludes those who do not neatly fit into the narrative. In the story of Jazz it excludes the massive and integral contributions of Latin musicians and in particular, Cuban musicians.

The scholar and producer, Ned Sublette, traces the influences of Cuban music on jazz by demonstrating how Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” uses the Cuban danzón rhythm and how Bo Diddley’s “hambone” beat is similar to the Cuban clave. Cuban music, Sublette explains, is the original intersection of African rhythm and European harmony.

A closer look at the image on the cover shows Mr. Valdés approaching the crossroads with an effortless stride in all white, cool and comfortable clothes. That ease and dexterity with influences and cultures is demonstrated throughout the recording. The opening track, “Zawinul’s Mambo,” a dedication to the Joe Zawinul, is a marriage between the late musician’s “Birdland” and Cuban tempos with a trumpet solo referencing the Cuban son. The second track, “Danzón,” works its way through two Ellington-like opening chords, through a danzón dance rhythm core, into dizzying, two-handed power runs while the rhythm section compels the listener with its cha-cha-cha.

“Both Sides,” is a more structured combining of two jazz traditions, American and Afro-Cuban “Begin To Be Good” combines Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” with the Gershwins’ “Lady Be Good” with a reference to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” coming through in the melody. “New Orleans (A Tribute to the Marsalis Family),” uses a derivative of the clave as it approaches the gutbucket style. “Yansá” is a piece that evokes the atmosphere of a piece bordering on Free Jazz, “Yansá” being the orisha who in Cuban mythology controls wind and lightening. “Julian” is a dedication to Chucho’s youngest son and it’s bluesy and playful. In the final track, Valdés reworks Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” as “Chucho’s Steps.” The harmonic progressions are a vigorous work-out with a rhythm made with clave sticks, congas and drums.

Chucho calls his band, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, a reference to the hard playing, intensely passionate Jazz Messengers. And his band can bring it. Bassist Lázaro Rivero Alarcón and drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles and batá drummer Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé work to drive the tempo melodic laybacks to intense temperatures, and like the Jazz Messengers, they always swing.

Chucho’s Steps is an important addition to a jazz legend’s discography and is driving, at times lyrical, conversation between one culture and another. Like a good conversation, it explores different themes, moods, and styles while remaining grateful to those who inspired.

Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers – Chucho’s Steps is out now on World Village/Harmonia Mundi

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About Earl G. Lundquist